ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Calculating the Hidden Costs to Our Kids’ Sports Programs

 What Parents’ and Coaches’ Abuse of Referees Costs Families

By Doug Abrams

In the past few weeks, the Washington Post featured two thoughtful articles that shine the spotlight on a growing problem that plagues youth sports from coast to coast. Under the headline, “Verbal Abuse From Parents, Coaches is Causing a Referee Shortage in Youth Sports,” writer Nick Eilerson explains that in high schools and community youth leagues alike, the lion’s share of abuse stems from “a deeply cutthroat sports culture, one that often holds amateur referees to a professional standard.”

In the second article, Post writer Matt Bonesteel says that growing numbers of seasoned high school referees hang up their whistles each year, frustrated with “parents and coaches screaming for your head while you do a job that isn’t exactly going to make anyone rich.”

The referees’ frustration is not fanciful. As I coached youth hockey and watched other teams’ games over the years, I heard parents in the stands and coaches behind the bench hurl insults at referees that no self-respecting adult would hurl at the family dog. Physical confrontations with referees, instigated by parents or coaches, were less common but did happen.

In the past few years, the Washington Post and several other media sources have reported the results. Youth sports programs have had a tough time recruiting new referees, many of whom drop out after about a year or two because they too grow unwilling to endure abuse from parents and coaches. Chronic shortages of referees have reportedly caused some youth leagues and high school conferences to postpone or reschedule games, or even to cancel some games.

In a recent column, I discussed how continuing attrition in the refereeing ranks can endanger player safety in high school and community youth league play, particularly in collision and contact sports. When veteran referees tired of running the gauntlet quit in droves each year, some games are left to less seasoned replacements who might not yet be ready to maintain the game control essential for player safety. That column appears at http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2017/04/02/abusive-sports-parents-epidemic-finding-refs-officials-work-youth-games-continues/

This column focuses on community youth leagues and not high schools. Adults’ chronic abuse of referees can hurt youth leaguers in two additional ways unrelated to player safety. Both ways concern money.

First, unstemmed abuse of referees from parents and coaches may indirectly limit the access of some children to community sports programs by increasing registration fees beyond what some families feel they can pay. Second, this abuse can require families, once they register, to divert money that they could otherwise spend more fruitfully on their children in other pursuits.

Limiting Access

First, access. . . . In high school sports, coaches and referees are typically paid for their service, which is only fair because most high school coaches are paid for theirs. As part of the curriculum, interscholastic sports receives funding from taxes or private tuitions.

In community youth leagues, however, coaches typically volunteer but referees typically get paid. Unless time is more valuable to referees than to coaches, why the difference?

The answer may affect the access of many children to community sports in the first place. In my community youth hockey leagues over the years, referees’ fees accounted for a quarter or more of a family’s annual registration fee; only ice-time rental typically accounted for more. The percentages allocated to referees’ fees can probably be even higher in sports such as baseball or soccer because field time is typically not so expensive.

We are talking here about a few hundred dollars per family for each player, which is not pocket change for many families. Particularly in sports with high start-up costs for equipment and uniforms, I wonder whether more children would be able to enroll in community programs with volunteer referees.

Parents juggling the family budget typically seek savings where they can, so why don’t more community youth leagues reduce registrations fees by encouraging volunteer referees? Perhaps much of the answer is that most prospective referees will not volunteer to bear the brunt of verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse from parents and coaches. Parents and coaches pay for their misconduct. Even referees who are motivated primarily be a desire to remain active with sports and kids, and not by a desire for extra income, would think twice about donating their time for bitter returns from hostile adults.

Many parents nowadays struggle to assure their children’s participation in sports by sacrificing elsewhere in the family budget. Volunteerism might be a real option if more parents and coaches would treat referees as who they are — public-spirited citizens who help bring sports into children’s lives — and not as error-prone antagonists.

Savings

Second, avoidable expense. . . . More and more youth leagues now require parents and coaches to attend pre-season meetings aimed at educating the adults about civility, respect, and sportsmanship. Here is another potential agenda item: By helping attendees understand how expensive their lack of self-control can be, community youth leagues might be able to help contain registration fees by enlisting volunteer referees if they enlist volunteer coaches. If a community’s sports culture were ever to displace crudity with civility, parents could spend the annual savings on their children in more constructive ways.

Sources: Nick Eilerson, Verbal  Abuse From Parents, Coaches Is Causing a Referee Shortage in Youth Sports, Wash. Post, June 16, 2017; Matt Bonesteel, Are We Running Out of High School Referees?, Wash. Post, May 19, 2017.

 

DISCIPLINE ISSUES: An Ongoing Issue for Parents, Coaches, and Kids

This is a topic that doesn’t seem to be discussed all that much these days. And yet, it’s an issue that continues to be a real concern for coaches, athletic directors, parents, and of course the athletes.

I’m talking about the art of disciplining athletes, especially HS and travel team athletes.

What do you do if you’re a parent…or if you’re the coach…of an athlete who does something that he or she shouldn’t have done? How do you dole out a punishment? How do you even figure out the right punishment?

More importantly, how do you teach the youngster a sense of right from wrong – so that he or she doesn’t make the same mistake again. And ideally, their teammates will learn from the mistakes of their peer.

Now, I know we live in a high-tech, app-driven world these days, and our kids are all about embracing the latest technology and adopting new trends in sports. And imposing discipline is most definitely Old School.

But unfortunately, as the Parent or the Coach, you have to lay down the law AND enforce the punishment.  It’s not easy and it’s not fun. But it’s important to teach life-long lessons that go far beyond the playing fields.

The problem is – -discipline and subsequent punishments are often complicated. That is:

If you punish your star player before a big game, and decide to bench him…..is that fair to the rest of the kids on the team who desperately need him to help win? Should that even be a consideration?

What about using alternative punishments? That is…okay, I’m not going to bench you or suspend you…but you will have to perform community service…or run extra laps….or something else as your punishment. But you can still play in the big game.

Does that kind of alternative punishment have the right and desired impact….or is it missing the mark?

There were a number of excellent calls this AM. Several of them made it clear that the coach has to be consistent and strong in meting out tough punishments. If a kid violates the team’s or school’s rules, and the right punishment is to be benched, then the coach needs to do that even if it means missing the biggest game of the year.

One coach related the story that he found an alternative punishment for one of his star players just so the kid wouldn’t miss the big game…and the move totally backfired. The kid had missed practice before a big game due to a senior prom a few days earlier. The coach said he learned the hard way from not sticking to his guns. The following year, not one but 8 of his players blew off practice before a big game, claiming they were still exhausted from prom night a few nights earlier.

As I discussed this coaching nightmare with this caller, I also heard from Coach Tom. Tom is from North Arlington, NJ, who is a loyal listener and always has great insights, and he made it clear that coaches have to be consistent with their decisions, they need to run big punishments in advance with the AD so that the AD is not caught off-guard, and that the coach needs to have the courage to follow through. I couldn’t agree more.

HERE’S A TYPICAL CASE….

Now, there are lots and lots of examples to choose from, but I was recently made aware of a situation that occurred this past March. According to a variety of police reports, the New Canaan HS baseball team decided to have a beer party a few days before their season opened.

Of course, buying alcohol in CT is illegal unless you’re 21, and even though the beer was served in one of the player’s homes….well, that doesn’t make this any better. In addition, there were other disturbing events that occurred at that party. But I just want to focus on what happened to the baseball players.

Once the police arrived on the scene, the party of course was broken up. And the young man, an 18-year-old, who had purchased the beers for his buddies and had the party in his home, well, he and his Dad were charged.

But here’s the part I don’t get: Although it was pretty clear what had happened at this get-together, and that a number of varsity ballplayers were drinking, nothing happened to them in terms of immediate punishment. I’m guessing that the New Canaan parents said that since the party had become a police investigation, there was no need to discipline the kids. And of course, nothing happened until very late in the baseball season, so the kids just practiced and played.

That is, they simply played the season with no suspensions or benching.

Yes, in late May, as the team was in the playoffs, it was then decided that the kid who had bought the book and hosted the party would be suspended for the rest of the season. But from what I can tell – and I could be wrong – but no punishment such as a suspension or benching was handed down to the players.

All that happened at the end of the season was the kids and their parents agreed to participate in some sort of training sessions of the perils of alcohol.

At the other end of the spectrum, one caller. Jason Beim, chimed in and said that former NFL player Keyshawn Johnson had instituted his own kind of discipline on his own son, Keyshawn Jr, who is a freshman on the University of Nebraska football team. When the older Johnson heard that his kid had stashed marijuana in his dorm room, Keyshawn didn’t wait for the college or the football coach to hand out discipline: Keyshawn jumped in himself and yanked his kid out of school for the fall semester. The irate father imposed his own parental punishment.

Sounds harsh? Perhaps. After all, kids make mistakes. We all know that. But kudos to Keyshawn Johnson for laying the law down on his son.

These days, I wonder how many other sports parents would have done the same thing?

 

INTRODUCING OLD SCHOOL NEW SCHOOL: A Different Kind of Sports Podcast

Dear Friends of Ask Coach Wolff:

I wanted to tell you about a new and different kind of podcast. It’s entitled “Old School v. New School” and it features my new son-in-law, Noah Savage, and myself. Noah is a 31-year-old 6-7 former All-Ivy League basketball player at Princeton, and I think it’s safe to say that he represents a new and different way of looking at the world of sports. He is most definitely “New School.”

And as for me, I’m considerably older than Noah, and of course, my views on sports tend to be a little more on the conservative side. Thus, I’m “Old School.”

In any event, Noah and I take on timely and controversial topics in sports, and we discuss our views in a new podcast series. It’s a lot of fun and clearly different in scope.  I would urge you all to sign up (see below – it’s easy), and then tell all your friends to listen in as well.

There’s several ways to listen:

ON THE COMPUTER

It’s available on Itunes and you can listen by clicking this link http://oldschoolnewschool.libsyn.com/

ON IPHONE by searching “Old School New School” on your podcast app on your Iphone. (It is the purple icon that says “podcast” on it) If you subscribe then the newest episodes will update each time you open that app and click “feed.”

Please click “Subscribe” then rate and review it!

We will release a new episode every Friday morning so that you can power through that last workday of the week.

Here’s a quick description:

Old School / New School is a new podcast where two sports broadcasters- Rick Wolff and Noah Savage – debate today’s most controversial and pressing sports issues from two very different perspectives – most notably that Wolff, in his 60s, is definitely “old school” whereas Savage, 31, is clearly “new school.”  Oh, and Noah happens to be Rick’s son-in-law.

Enjoy!

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: What are the Biggest Concerns Today?

It’s a fairly straightforward question that I asked this AM on my radio show. And as I suspected, the responses were plentiful and all over the sports parenting landscape.

As I jotted down notes from the callers, we had lots of opinions. Specifically:

Too much specialization in one sport at an early age.

The increasing cost of travel teams in all sports.

The fear of exposing one’s kids to concussions in football and other contact sports.

The monetization of youth sports as private coaches, camps, and travel teams become everywhere.

The loss of athletes who play 2 or 3 different varsity sports.

HS Coaches who insist that their players do not listen to instruction from outside experts.

The age-old debate about “trophies for everyone.”

This was one of those shows where I could have easily filled up three hours with discussion from the callers. Seemingly, everybody has an opinion, and a strong one, when it comes to youth sports today.

What about Having Fun?

Yet of all the calls that came in, there was one observation that DID NOT come in. And that surprised me.

That is, whether our kids today have as much fun or draw as much enjoyment from playing sports as we did when we were growing up. When today’s parents (or even grandparents) reflect on their own childhoods, there was very little parental involvement or organized leagues. Kids were allowed to enjoy their fun and recreation without the constant rush and need to accelerate one’s skills to a higher level. Not having try outs for travel teams at ages younger than 12 or 13 allowed kids to have the freedom to master athletic skills at a more leisurely, and presumably, more fun pace.

I fully understand those days are long gone. But judging from the number of issues that were discussed this AM, and the fact that there are so very few answers or solutions, it sure would be nice to find a way to allow the next generation of athletes to first develop a sense of joy and elation from playing sports….and then wait a few years before exposing them to the endless struggle to develop, win, and get to that next level of competition.

I see this all the time with baseball these days. Kids with talent focus so much time, energy, and money on travel baseball, private instruction, and so on that it’s always surprising to me that when a ballplayer finishes playing the game on his HS varsity, or even in college, more often than not he usually just walks away from the sport. Amateur and semi-pro baseball teams — which used to be plentiful and full of kids in their 20s and 30s who loved playing baseball – are now drying up everywhere and are fast becoming extinct.

What happened to all those top baseball players?

That suggests to me that all those kids who grew up working so hard to develop and master their ability in baseball — well, perhaps they didn’t really actually have a passion for the sport. Maybe they just felt a sense of obligation to their parents to play. And when the dream ended, they no longer had any desire to keep playing.

That may be the legacy of today’s sports parents.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY: HS Athletes Who Put Integrity Ahead of Winning

“When No One Is Watching”: Two Stories of High School Athletes’ Integrity

By Doug Abrams

With national and international crises and discord dominating the news these days, it takes something special for a youth sports story to reach a major metropolitan newspaper’s editorial page. On June 2, the Minneapolis Star Tribune saluted 16-year-old high school junior Kaylee Gossen, a varsity golfer whose story provides a welcome respite from news accounts of the troubles that sometimes mar the games that children and adolescents play.

Kaylee reminded us that integrity counts in youth sports, and that people respect spirited competitors who take the high road. Without diminishing her will to win, the Marshall, Minnesota golfer delivered the timely reminder when the personal stakes counted the most.

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SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY SECRETS: What Sports Parents Need to Know

As sports parents, we worry so much about our kids learning the correct physical technique or mechanics in their sports…but about their mental approach?

For example, what should you say to your youngster if they’re getting visibly nervous or moody before a game?

Is it okay if they develop certain rituals or superstitions as part of their pre-game prep?

Dan McGinn, who is a sports parent himself, has written a new book entitled PSYCHED UP: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed, and I was eager to interview on my radio show this AM. Dan serves as a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, and has a real passion for sports psychology, which as most of you know, is a long-time passion of mine as well.

Dan’s book touches on a number of competitive fields, whether it be sports…or business…or in the performing arts. But the main theme that underlies all of his stories and insights is what do successful individuals do in order to assure that each performance is a good one. And Dan underscores some of the important myths and misconceptions of pre-game psychological preparation.

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SPORTSMANSHIP: HS Boys Lax Team Intrudes on Visiting Girls Before Playoff Game

Well, what happened the other day in Yorktown, NY?

Depending on who you talk to, there was some sort of dust-up between the members of the Yorktown HS boys lax team…and the Somers HS girls lax team that clearly ruffled some feathers – especially on the Somers side.

Many of the Somers parents continue to be outraged.

From most accounts, here’s what happened. A couple of weeks ago, on May 25th, the Somers HS girls lax team travelled to Yorktown to play the Yorktown girls’ lax team in a championship playoff game. The winner would not only take home Section One honors, but the win would qualify to compete in the NYS lax tournament.

As is often done with visiting teams, the Somers girls lax squad was ushered into the Yorktown boys locker room in order to change and prepare for the game. This was done because the girls’ locker room was being used by the host team, the Yorktown girls.

At first the boys locker room was locked, but then a door was opened, and the Somers girls went inside. They played some music, got taped up, and mentally starting getting focused on the big game.

But as they were getting ready, apparently several members of the Yorktown boys lax team entered that same locker room. They had just finished their practice session for the day, and apparently weren’t aware that a visiting female team was in their locker room. There were no signs posted suggesting that the boys locker room was being used by a visiting girls team. Nor were there any coaches or supervisors outside the lockerroom warning boys not to go in.

As the Yorktown boys entered and encountered a girls’ team, the boys turned off the music and made some typically dumb adolescent comments to the Somers girls – stuff like “I’m going to get naked” and “I’m going to spit in your mouth” and there was also some profanity involved.

Again, depending on who you talk to, the comments – although certainly inappropriate – were made in jest, and were not overly threatening – or at least that’s how it was reported. But technically, these comments could be classified as “sexual harassment” since the comments were of an unwelcome sexual nature. The good news is that there was no physical contact or pushing or shoving from either side.

AN INVASION OF PRIVACY ?

But apparently a number of Somers HS girls and their parents did feel that these verbal comments were not only called for, but the boys’ unexpected intrusion DID violate the girls’ sense of privacy and definitely bordered on sexual harassment.

And of course, the Somers girls  – who were understandably focused on the upcoming game – were disturbed from their pre-game preparation, and ultimately left the locker room angry and upset. Not the best way to get ready for a big game – a game, by the way, that they lost.

Since that incident, the Somers parents have been extremely outspoken, have complained strongly to their school Superintendent, and this incident is apparently not going away.

I asked Tony Fiorino, who has been on the Sports Edge several times in the past, to come on this show. As luck would have it, not only does Tony and his family live in Somers, his daughter Sophia is a senior at Somers HS and is one of the star players on the lax team, and she was in the lockerroom.

The first question I asked Tony was how was it possible that no one from either Yorktown or from Somers was not present, guarding the doors? Tony was just as bewildered as I was, because clearly the posting of a coach or supervisor at the lockerroom would have easily prevented this from occurring.

As far as his daughter was concerned, Tony said that Sophia wasn’t all that concerned by the episode, but also added that there were apparently some Somers’ players who were upset. And Tony was quick to point out even if only one girl was offended, that was enough for an apology from Yorktown.

And to that end, I ended the show by asking why wasn’t an apology forthcoming? Even if no one was at fault here, the simply reality was that Yorktown was the host team for the game, and as such, by allowing the boys lax players to innocently walk into the lockerroom when a visiting girls team was there has to fall upon Yorktown’s shoulders.

A straightforward and sincere public apology from Yorktown to Somers would have probably put an end to this incident. But no such public apology was forthcoming, and that allows the Somers’ parents to continue to be angry. Finally – and I find this somewhat curious – it was the Somers Superintendent (not his counterpart from Yorktown) who issued a statement saying that the incident had been investigated and there was nothing more to be said or done.

And that’s how the episode ended, although judging from the hefty amount of media attention this incident received, this moment between Somers and Yorktown won’t soon be forgotten. Both schools, which border each other, have a long and proud history of athletic competition, and certainly they will compete again in sports in the fall.

And when they do, it might be a good idea to have the lockerrooms monitored by outside supervisors.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Should Varsity Letters Be Awards to HS Students Who Compete in Non-Athletic Pursuits?

On my WFAN radio show last Sunday we had a spirited discussion on whether videogames – or e-games as they are known – should be considered as a new kind of HS sport.

Most of the debate centered on whether these very popular games should be classified as a sport…or simply as an activity.

The main point that was debated back and forth was whether to be a sport, there needed to be a real element of perspiration in the mix. After all, one of the underlying concerns about our kids playing videogames for hours on end is that a lack of physical exercise and exertion lends itself to all sorts of health issues as the kids get out of shape and heavier.

Personally, I felt there was a real growing wariness about sanctioning e-gaming as a legitimate HS sport when, in fact, this so-called sport not only does nothing for the youngster’s physical conditioning, —  but can actually be very detrimental to their health.

True, I guess you can make a case that playing a contact sport like football or ice hockey or field hockey can lead to concussions, which can also lead to long-term health issues as well. But for better or worse, in today’s world, traditional sports are seen as doing wonders for kids to stay in shape, whereas sitting in front of a computer screen is as seen as being damaging.

At the end of the show last week, there was no real definitive consensus. But it did give us pause about whether we should embrace e-gaming as a sport.

Let me give you an analogy:

For example, in a few states in the Midwest like Arkansas, bass fishing is considered to be a legitimate varsity sport. Now, I must confess that I have never been to, or witnessed, a HS bass fishing contest, but my initial reaction is that when you go fishing, you pretty much sit in a rowboat waiting for a fish to nibble on your line.

I guess there’s some physical activity involved in trying to reel the fish in. In fact, Doug Abrams points out with a laugh that most likely it’s only the fish that gets a true workout in these competitions.  And yes, I don’t suspect that kind of physical activity for the HS fisherman is the same as, say, running up and down a soccer field on a hot humid day… or putting on a full-court press in basketball….or running 400 meters at full speed in a heated HS race.

You get my point.

EARNING THAT VARSITY LETTER IN HS SPORTS

But as a follow-up to this topic of  what truly constitutes a varsity sport, I also wanted to discuss the awarding of varsity letters in HS.Now, one of the great traditions in American HS sports is for a youngster to earn a HS varsity letter.

I mean, this was a big, big deal when I was in HS, and from what I can gather, earning a varsity letter still remains something to honor and to cherish. You just don’t get a varsity letter for being on the roster. A youngster has have to log a certain amount of quality playing time – or at least that’s how it was set up when I was a kid.

In other words, you had to EARN your letter.

Now, I mention all of this because I came across a new law that was recently passed in NJ.

In short, the new law now says that any and all students who represent their HS in other extracurricular activities that compete against other schools should also be eligible to win a varsity letter for their efforts.

That could be for kids who are in the HS chess club…or competing in Robotics of the Mind….spelling bees….pretty much any extracurricular activity in which kids from one school are competing against kids from other schools.

In short, this expansion of eligibility for a HS varsity letter is a little different to be sure. Yes, I know that over the years that some school districts were giving out varsity letters on an ad hoc basis in order salute those kids who didn’t play sports but had talents in other areas and had obviously put time and effort into succeeding in these outlets.

Most of the calls this AM came in from those individuals who had been awarded varsity letters for anything from competing in history competitions to chess clubs to even ceramic competitions when they were in HS. They were indeed quite proud of their accomplishments, and felt strongly that this new law was not only a good move, but long overdue.

Other callers, however, asked poignant questions. To wit:

Is there a real and tangible difference between being on a HS varsity sports team….as opposed to being on a non-sports HS organization and being able to earn a varsity letter?

In other words, by opening the door to varsity letters for extracurricular activities, doesn’t that have the impact of cheapening or diluting the varsity letter?

In effect, does this new law in NJ simply add an extension of the age-old debate that “everybody gets a trophy” just for competing?

And what about the HS kids themselves? How do they feel about all of this?

Or is this just another case of trying to placate today’s parents who want to know how come their non-athletic (but talented) kids can’t earn a varsity letter?

For that matter, does achieving a varsity letter still carry the same feeling of singular accomplishment that it did, say, 15 or 20 years ago?

One caller, for example, said that he had graduated from Power Memorial HS back in the early 1970s when Power Memorial was a legendary school for athletics. He couldn’t make the basketball team (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was there then, as was Steve Kallas). So the caller went out for the school band, which, he pointed out, was quite a commitment as the band played all over NYC. In any event, in his senior year, after being in the school band for four years, he was awarded a varsity letter which was quite meaningful to him.

True, there was no competition against other schools, but the Power Memorial administration clearly wanted to salute him in some ways for his four years of dedicated commitment, and as such, I could see why giving him a varsity letter made a lot of sense.

Only the next few years will determine whether this new law will change things dramatically in terms of HS kids in NJ. In the end, it’s up to the HS kids and their parents whether earning a varsity letter in chess, or in science competitions, or in spelling bees is going to be a big deal for them.

 

 

 

TRENDS IN SPORTS: More Discussion of E-Gaming as Sport

Building upon Doug Abram’s superb column from earlier this week about the threat that videogames pose to our kids’ long-term health, I presented to the WFAN listening audience this straightforward question: knowing how popular videogaming has become in recent years with our kids, has it now reached a level where it can and should be considered as a real sport?

Not surprisingly, the general response was that no, it’s not a sport, but more of an activity. Something closer in scope to playing cards or throwing darts than. say, a traditional athletic pursuit like football, lacrosse, or baseball. The key criteria kept coming back to the dictionary definition of “sport” involving physical exertion causing perspiration.

But there was lots of debate. For example, is NASCAR a sport? Does driving a car, albeit fast, constitute real exercise?

How about bass fishing? After all, bass fishing is a sanctioned varsity sport in several states in the Midwest.

Yet the real takeaway from this AM’s discussion was the following: that no matter whether e-gaming is considered a sport or activity or just a pastime, there was true and genuine concern about kids spending hours and hours in front of a computer screen, seemingly addicted to games showing very violent themes. That is, in recent years, the medical association has warned over and over again that kids today need to remain physically fit in order to stave off long-term health issues regarding obesity, diabetes, and other concerns. In short, today’s generation of kids are running a real risk of having all sorts of illnesses, many of which could be prevented if they remained physically fit instead of being hooked on e-games.

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

Everybody pretty much agreed that e-gaming is only beginning to become more and more popular. Even the TV networks have picked up on this trend, and made e-gaming into a major event that generates decent TV ratings.

Because this is a not a temporary fad, parents are growing concerned about their kids who are spending more and more time in front of their computers.

In fact, several callers suggested that parents really need to step up and intervene and just don’t look the other way. No, not to forbid their kids from playing videogames, but to have a serious parent-to-child conversation about the dangers of this activity. Just in the same way that Moms and Dads need to talk with their kids about the inherent dangers about smoking or drugs, parents need to tell kids about the issues of spending too much time in front of the computer.

One caller suggested that parents should mandate that for every hour a kid spends playing a video game, he or she needs to spend at least an hour outside exercising in the fresh air and playing a real sport.

These are interesting suggestions, but one thing is clear. We’re going to hear and hear about e-gaming in the years to come, and it’s going to be incumbent on Moms and Dads to figure out a new way to handle a problem — like concussions — that is not going away.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Have Video Games Now Become a Real Sport for our Kids?

More About Whether Playing Video Games Is Exercise: The New Johns Hopkins University Study

By Doug Abrams

Constructive dialogue sometimes emerges when, close in time to one another, the media reports a pair of developments that offer contrasting perspectives. For youth sports parents, coaches, and community decision makers, such a pair appeared within a week in early May. The contrasting perspectives carry implications important for public health and for youth well-being.

“Big Dividends”

The first development came from the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University. In the journal Health Affairs, the Center published a research study that detailed the harmful effects of childhood physical inactivity for the nation and for children themselves. Led by Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, the Center’s executive director, researchers found that “encouraging exercise and investing in physical activity such as school recess and youth sports leagues when kids are young pay big dividends as they grow up.”

Many of the dividends are financial. Under the headline “Overweight Kids Are Costing America Billions,” USA TODAY summarized key findings from the Johns Hopkins study: “[I]f half of America’s children age 8 through 11 exercised for 25 minutes, three times a week, there would be 340,000 fewer overweight and obese children, saving $21.9 billion in lifetime lost wages and medical bills. If all children followed the same plan, 1.2 million children would avoid becoming obese or overweight, enough to save $62.3 billion.”

For children themselves, regular physical exercise pays dividends by opening the door to healthier lives. The John’s Hopkins researchers cite reduced risks of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer throughout adulthood.

Among other recommendations, the research team urges adults to “get your kids to play sports, even if they won’t become stars.”  Dr. Lee and his colleague Dr. Marie Ferguson observe, however, that trends are moving in the wrong direction. Children today spend “too much time on smartphones, computers and television,” coupled with “declining participation in sports.”

E-sports

Early May’s second development came barely a week after the Johns Hopkins research study appeared. The Chicago Tribune carried a thoughtful article by John Keilman under the headline, “Video Gaming: The Next High School Sport? Competitive ESports Gain Traction.” The story was about a video game competition among Chicago-area high schools. Keilman reported that as more and more high schools establish competitive e-sports teams based on fantasy professional leagues, the Illinois High School Association might sanction e-sports as an interscholastic sport sometime soon.

Keilman tested the limits of the video game competition’s analogies. “Did the competitors put in many hours of practice? Yes. Did they possess physical and mental gifts? Affirmative. Was teamwork a crucial ingredient for success? Absolutely.” But one element was missing — “perspiration.” “It’s hard to break a sweat when you’re sitting in a climate-controlled room moving little more than your fingers.”

The 2015 Research Reports 

Last month’s Johns Hopkins study and Chicago Tribune article recall two reports published in June, 2015. In the first report, nearly a quarter of surveyed children between the ages of five and 16 told Britain’s Youth Sports Trust that they consider playing computer games with friends to be physical activity. Among seven- and eight-year-olds, the percentage was nearly a third.

The children said that they play sports or otherwise engage in exercise about 30 to 40 minutes a day (often in mandated school physical education programs), but that they spend nearly three hours a day playing with technology. The Trust predicted that today’s younger generation risks becoming “hostages to handheld devices.”

The second 2015 report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, estimated that more than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 (nearly 75% of men and nearly 67% of women) are now either overweight or obese. For the first time, more American adults are obese than overweight (67.6 million vs. 65.2 million). The percentages are the highest ever, substantially higher than ones reported 20 years earlier.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio estimated that more than a third of American children are overweight or obese, a troublesome number because (as former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said in 2001) “adolescents who are overweight are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese adults.”

JAMA researcher Lin Yang told American Health Line that technology has “changed the dynamic of our lifestyle.” As accelerating technological advances contribute to overweight and obesity, Dr. Yang sounded a “wake-up call” for action in “multiple sectors.”

“Increase Team Sport Participation Among All Students”

One of these sectors is community youth sports programs. In 2012, Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) featured a study that measured the positive effects on children’s health of various forms of physical exercise. These forms included active commuting to school (such as by walking or biking), regular participation in school physical education classes, and participation in team sports.

Dr. Keith M. Drake and his research team found that active commuting to school has some residual positive effect on a student’s body weight, but that participation in high school physical education classes does not.  But there was more.  The researchers found that “[t]eam sports participation had the strongest and most consistent inverse association with weight status.”  The study estimates that overweight and obesity would “decrease by 11% and 26% respectively, if adolescents played on at least 2 sports teams per year.”

The researchers’ antidote? “Obesity prevention programs should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”

Good News and Bad News

Taken together, these recent studies demonstrate that inclusive community youth sports programs can enhance the public health by improving children’s lives. But recent accounts, appearing in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, suggest that youth sports enrollments appear to be declining in many parts of the nation.

On the positive side of the ledger, an estimated 35 million children — nearly half of all American youngsters — join at least one organized sports program each year.  But on the negative side, about 70% of these youngsters quit playing organized sports by the time they turn 13, and nearly all quit by the time they turn 15.  Indeed, the dropout rate begins accelerating as early as age 10.

A Role for Video Gaming?

In prior columns, I have written about how much work remains to be done before community youth sports systems become all that they can be. Also honing the national dialog about national health needs and youth well-being are such leading voices as my friends Rick Wolff, Bob Bigelow, Positive Coaching Alliance, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, and the MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety.

As work continues on the youth sports front, what role might exist for interscholastic video gaming?  A generation or so ago, competitive television quiz shows such as “It’s Academic” and “The College Bowl” won loyal followings by encouraging excellence from high school and college students. The competitions inspired board games for home play, the closest analogues to what we call interactive media today. No one (in John Keilman’s words) ever “broke a sweat.” For participants and viewers alike, traditional interscholastic sports competition suited many students, but not all students.

In the 21st century, interscholastic sports-based video game competitions may similarly hold promise for students who do not want to play traditional organized sports. Similar to other school-based non-athletic extracurricular activities, these interscholastic competitions may also hold promise for students whose skills do not readily permit such play. Growing numbers of colleges and universities reportedly offer scholarships to accomplished competitive video gamers.

High schools can teach teamwork, dedication, dexterity, and similar skills through extracurricular activities that take place off the playing field. But video gaming, competitive or otherwise, provides no substitute for physical exercise. Whether through organized competitive sports or more informal individual exercise, encouraging lifestyles rich in physical activity remains a public health imperative for children and adolescents who also follow other pursuits.

 

Sources: Modeling the Economic and Health Impact of Increasing Children’s Physical Activity in the United States, Health Affairs, p. 902 (No. 5, 2017); Sean Rossman, Overweight Kids Are Costing America Billions, USA TODAY, May 1, 2007;  Future Foundation, The Class of 2035: Promoting a Brighter and More Active Future For the Youth of Tomorrow; John Keilman Video Gaming: The Next High School Sport? Competitive Esports Gain Traction, Chicago Tribune, May 12, 2017; Bruce Y. Lee & Marie Ferguson, More Physical Activity Among Children Will Save America Billions, STAT (May 2, 2017);  Hannah Richardson, BBC News, Youths Becoming Hostages to Handheld Devices, Says Charity (June 23, 2015); Lin Yang & Graham A. Colditz, Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity in the United States, 2007-2012, JAMA Internal Medicine, June 22, 2015; Am. Health Line, Study: Significant Uptick in Overweight, Obese U.S. Residents, June 23, 2015; U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (2001); National Public Radio, Morning Edition, Childhood Obesity (July 1, 2015); Keith M. Drake et al., Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status, Pediatrics, vol. 130, p. e296 (Aug. 2012); HealthDayNews, Increased Physical Activity  For Children May Save Billions, Study Says (May 2, 2017); Mike Brennan, LTU Offers $600,000 in Scholarships to Video Gamers, https://mitechnews.com/steam/ltu-offers-600000-scholarships-video-gamers/  (May 23, 2017).